Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States. An estimated 1.7 million new cancer cases and 600,000 cancer deaths are projected to occur in the United States in 2018.
With many types of cancer, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the patient’s prognosis. That is why it is so important for patients to be conscientious about following their physicians’ recommendations regarding periodic screening, including PSA tests, mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies and skin checks by dermatologists. Countless lives are saved every year by screening tests that detect cancers at an early and treatable stage.
For these screening tools to work, physicians and health care providers must have reliable systems for identifying abnormal test results, reporting them to their patients, and ordering the necessary follow-up. There are well-established guidelines (or standards of care) regarding how often such screening tests should be performed, what constitutes an abnormal result, and what steps are necessary when an abnormal result occurs, from additional testing to referral to a specialist. Following these guidelines obviously does not prevent every cancer death but often gives the patient a substantially better chance of survival than if the guidelines are not followed.
Unfortunately, physicians and other health care providers do not always follow these guidelines. Sometimes an abnormal test result (like an elevated PSA or an abnormal pap smear) either is not noted at all or is not acted on appropriately. When a physician fails to notify a patient of a concerning test result or fails to order the necessary follow-up, the result is a delay in diagnosis of cancer. The delay may cause cancer to go undetected and untreated for months or even years, allowing cancer to progress and perhaps even metastasize. When the cancer is eventually discovered, the patient’s prognosis may be much worse than it would have been with a timely diagnosis. In some cases, the patient has lost the opportunity for cure altogether.
Cancers are diagnosed by means other than screening tests, of course. A patient may see a doctor about a specific concern, such as a concerning lump or pain, and the doctor may order a work-up that reveals cancer. Cancers also may be diagnosed “serendipitously.” This occurs when a patient undergoes a test for a reason totally unrelated to cancer and the test reveals cancer – for example when a patient undergoes a chest x-ray for suspected pneumonia and the x-ray shows cancerous lung nodules. Regardless of the circumstances, well-established guidelines govern the physician’s obligations to identify suspicious diagnostic study findings, report them to the patient or ordering physician, and recommend an appropriate follow-up. Failure to follow these guidelines may result in a delay in diagnosis of cancer.
Youman & Caputo has significant experience successfully litigating cases involving delays in diagnosis of many different types of cancer, including brain, prostate, breast, skin, lung, cervical, sarcoma, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer. If you have a potential medical malpractice case in Pennsylvania or New Jersey involving a delay in diagnosis of cancer, please contact us today for a free consultation.